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Know Your Rights
Source: New York Daily News
Subject: Legal Services
Type: Media Coverage

Faced with NYC funding cut, over 100 low-wage workers poised to lose legal help

After suffering years of alleged sexual harassment and wage theft while working for a Queens caterer, Alicia Calderon decided to stand up for herself and pursue legal action.

She felt “really frustrated, really anxious, terribly bad,” she told the Daily News through a translator.

Calderon, a Guatemalan immigrant and transgender woman, “wants to educate people and let them know that transgender people are like everyone else.”

“Everyone should have the same opportunity, and it’s not OK for someone to commit a crime and nothing happens because the person who survived the crime is transgender,” she added.

But since the city last month canceled funding for its Low-Wage Worker Support initiative — which the nonprofit Make the Road New York tapped to pursue Calderon’s case on her behalf — her complaints before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and U.S. Department of Labor are in limbo.

“It would be a real shame” if the case falls apart due to lack of city support,” said Calderon, 27, of Queens, adding that she’s not in it for a payout, though she believes she’s owed about $64,000.

Her former employer did not immediately answer a request for comment.

Make the Road and other nonprofits that use Low-Wage Worker Support funds are hoping that Mayor de Blasio and the City Council reverse their decision to cancel about $2.5 million in funding for the cause — one of many cuts in this year’s $88 billion budget, which came in the face of huge tax revenue shortfalls due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“We will have to cut legal services to families that in many cases already have existing cases,” said Theo Oshiro, deputy director of Make the Road New York. “For those families, they’re getting the rug pulled out from under them.”

The cut is especially galling to Oshiro and other nonprofit leaders in light of weeks of rhetoric from the mayor, Council Speaker Corey Johnson and others who ceaselessly praised essential workers who kept the city running during the pandemic. Oshiro noted many of Make the Road’s clients pursuing legal action for cases like harassment and stolen wages are immigrants working jobs at grocery stores, delivery services and construction.

“These are the workers who are going to be able to put our economy back on track, our society back on track,” Oshiro said. “It really is a tragedy that in this moment, our city is turning our backs on our workers.”

Make the Road New York has 113 cases for low-wage workers, including Calderon’s, underway, according to Oshiro. The organization received $360,000 for its work last year.

Oshiro and Magdalena Barbosa of Catholic Migration Services, another group that sues on behalf of low-income workers, said they’ve seen a spike in cases in which people haven’t been able to get benefits, among other issues.

“Since the pandemic, we’ve been doing a lot more work for folks impacted by the virus,” Barbosa said.

Her cases include helping people who have contracted coronavirus or had to stay home to take care of family during the outbreak.

“I’m kind of dumbfounded,” Barbosa said of the city’s cut to the Low-Wage Worker Support program, which provided about $175,000 to her group last year.

“There is no rationale to completely eliminate funding for a service that is just so essential right now in the midst of a pandemic,” she added.

Asked for comment about the cut, de Blasio’s and Johnson’s offices stressed they strived to preserve other forms of assistance for low-income workers.

“Workers and unemployed people are first of mind for Mayor de Blasio,” mayoral spokeswoman Laura Feyer said in a statement. “That’s why, despite budget cuts driven by an historic fiscal and health crisis, we can continue to put working people first with programs like our Worker Protection Hotline,” which fields questions about working during the city’s reopening process.”

A representative for Johnson noted the Council managed to preserve about $700 million in funding for special projects after de Blasio proposed a $1 billion cut, but “unfortunately, we were not able to restore every dollar.”

Last year, the city provided $2 million in funding for lawsuits for low-income workers, while the Council allocated another $500,000 toward letting people know of the program.

Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Queens), the body’s main champion of the Low-Wage Worker Support initiative, noted that the Council is still spending $120,000 to inform nail salon workers and immigrants in Jackson Heights, Queens, of their rights.

“It’s a damn shame that we’re clapping and banging our pots and pans every night at 7 o’clock for health care workers and also for retail workers and restaurant workers and others who are braving the pandemic,” Lancman said, “and the mayor is cutting a program that would provide them with desperately needed legal representation when they get taken advantage of by their employers.”

It’s hypothetically possible for the Council to revisit the Low-Wage Worker Support initiative in the fall, when the legislature customarily does budget modifications.

But the program will be facing competition for funds for causes from schools to public safety.

In the meantime, Calderon still hopes to see justice.

“It would be unjust to allow individuals who are part of the LGBTQ+ community to stumble and not be able to speak up for the abuse that they have gone through,” she said. “It would be an injustice to not provide them that support.”